With international attention focused on the escalating tension in Syria, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen today fired several ballistic missiles at military and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, Iranian and Saudi media outlets reported. According to Tasnim News Agency, a mouthpiece of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Houthis used the Burkan H-2 missiles to target the Saudi Defense Ministry. Another missile was reportedly aimed at the Saudi port city of Jizan north of the Yemeni border. 

Saudi officials said the country’s air defense systems successfully intercepted all Houthi missiles originating from Yemen. The news came as the Saudi military earlier in the day brought down a Houthi drone flying over an international airport in the kingdom’s southern city of Abha, the capital of Aseer Province near the Red Sea. Another drone reportedly was intercepted in Jizan. The Houthi rebels claimed they had launched the drone to target a Saudi Aramco facility. There were no reports about any damage or disruption in the Aramco’s operations – suggesting the drones were intercepted before they reached the targets. 

Houthi outlets said the rebels used a Qasef-1 drone to disrupt air traffic at Abha airport. According to Iranian media, flights from the airport were suspended for some time.

Comment: The Houthi missile attacks into the Saudi mainland have recently increased in both frequency and range, prompting retaliatory air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition against the Yemeni capital city of Sana’a, which is controlled by the Houthi rebels. The latest barrage of missiles into the kingdom has also heightened tension between Tehran and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and its allies blame Iran for the attacks, accusing Tehran of providing ballistic missiles and other weapons to the Houthis. 

A week ago, the Saudi military said it shot down a missile fired by Houthis at the Aramco refinery in Jizan, indicating that the Yemeni rebels are deliberately targeting the backbone of the kingdom’s economy. The Houthis this month also attacked a Saudi oil tanker in the Red Sea. The coalition spokesperson described it as a “terrorist attack” aimed at disrupting commercial shipping lines in the Bab al-Mandeb strait, and reiterated that Tehran was arming the Yemeni insurgents. 

Since the Yemeni war began three years ago, the Houthis have fired about 100 missiles against civilian and military targets inside Saudi Arabia; and today’s attacks were the fourth time in the last five months the rebels launched missiles against Riyadh. 

Tehran denies providing weapons and missiles to the Houthis. But UN fact-finding teams and US and allied militaries have established connections between Tehran and Houthis’ growing missile capability. 

Iran is also said be behind the Houthis’ enhanced drone technology. The rebels last year said they possessed Qasef-1 and three other drones types used for intelligence and attack. According to the UK-based Conflict Armament Research group (CAR), the Qasef-1 drone was most likely made in Iran and smuggled to the Houthis in parts. 

Tehran's support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen has also further strained Tehran’s relations with Washington. When a Houthi ballistic missile targeted the international airport in Riyadh on November 4, both Saudi and American officials said they held Tehran and its allies responsible for the attack. In December, US permanent ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, presented “concrete evidence” of Iran’s weapons support to the Yemeni rebels and called for international action to punish Iran for it. She said the debris of the missile used to target the Saudi airport had Iranian marking.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been at war in Yemen since 2015, launching air raids and laying a blockade on the Houthi-controlled regions in Yemen. The war has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 Yemenis and caused a humanitarian crisis in the country. International efforts to find a negotiated settlement to the war have yielded no results so far.